Festivities, water wars mark Oregon Cattlemen's 100th anniversary

Jun 28, 2013

The quiet town of Baker City, OR, last week came alive with a three-day celebration honoring the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association’s 100th anniversary representing Oregon’s ranching community. Attendees were treated to a packed schedule over the weekend, which mixed the typical conference business meetings with a hearty helping of Northwestern fun.

Between a ranch rodeo, stock dog demonstration, historic parade and ranch tours, Oregon cattlemen’s Association (OCA) members still found plenty of time to visit and browse the wellstocked trade show. A performance by cowboy humorist Baxter Black capped off the historic celebration with the well-known storyteller’s trademark home-spun tales.

Founded 1913 in Baker City as the Oregon Cattle and Horse Raiser’s Association, the organization’s early efforts focused largely on addressing livestock theft. Over the years, however, the issues have changed. These days, Oregon ranchers are more concerned about wolves swiping their calves than cattle rustlers. Impending government regulation of the livestock industry threatens producers’ ability to raise cattle according to commonsense practices. And the image of the cattle industry—once a symbol of America’s cultural roots—is under constant pressure from animal rights groups and anti-grazing activists.

Due to their efforts, the public often tends to be skeptical about whether ranchers should still be considered the “good guys.”

For OCA President Curtis Martin, it’s a constant challenge to educate the public about who ranchers are, and how beef gets raised, processed and to the consumer’s plate.

“They take it for granted that their food will always be there,” Martin told the Baker City Herald. “There is a huge infrastructure behind that grocery store.”

In the contentious area of wildlife management issues affecting ranchers, OCA has also emerged as a major figure. Last month, OCA signed a historic agreement with environmental groups, the state wildlife agency and the governor’s office that will give ranchers the option of lethally taking problem wolves without a permit, a provision long sought by cattlemen who have to deal with the aggressive predators. The agreement is currently working its way through the Oregon legislature for ratification.

Though there is certainly no shortage of challenges facing Oregon’s ranchers, the question of water rights dominated discussions at the Baker City convention. Several days before the event, a 38-year legal tug-owar over water in Oregon’s Klamath County reached a climax when state water adjudicators decided in favor of the Klamath Tribes by asserting the superiority of the Tribe’s water claims over those of ranchers in the Upper Klamath Basin, who use the water to irrigate their hay meadows. As calls from the area water master came in across north Klamath County for ranchers to shut off their irrigation flows, conference attendees wrangled with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association leadership in attempts to generate national industry recognition of the issue.

To protest the action, ranchers have planned to drive over 100 cattle-hauling trucks into the town of Klamath Falls July 1 and hold a rally to protest the decision. They claim that over 100,000 acres of productive irrigated ground and potentially 4,000 jobs could be lost if ranchers in the Upper Klamath Basin are deprived of their water rights. — Andy Rieber, andyrieber.com, WLJ Correspondent